content marketing trends
Marketing Content Strategy

2016 Content Marketing Trends Reveal How Story Can Save Your Brand

5 Minute Read

The digital world is at war these days, and content marketing trends suggest marketers are caught in the middle.

Instagram’s Moments feud with Snapchat over the implementation of what is, effectively, its Stories feature. Adblock and Facebook enter into an arms race over the filtering of native advertising content. Hulu drops its ad offerings. And all the while, poorly made content continues to ruin content marketing for everyone.

It’s a wild time to be working in the field—with industry experts on one side singing the praises of story-driven marketing and advocating a return to more personable approaches for business, while all the platforms on which we operate grow increasingly populated with ads. Is the market moving too quickly for professionals to keep up? Or could marketers possibly be missing some key element that could help them rise above these battles?

The Dilemma

This month, Ascend2 released the 2016 State of Content Marketing report. Its findings suggest that many of the struggles content marketers are experiencing may not be due to shifts in the way platforms are operating, but rather are the results of marketers progressively adopting—and improving at—content-based marketing. Of the 219 company representatives surveyed, only 16 percent considered their companies to be excelling at content-driven efforts, with a majority of companies (50 percent) reporting that their content marketing efforts were “somewhat effective.” Likewise, where seeking to improve, 35 percent percent of companies believed they were rapidly improving at content marketing, while 54 percent reported marginal improvement.

Ascend2 2016 State of Content Marketing report

In this, the content marketing trends taking place in platform advertisements may not actually be proactive attempts to grab more people, but rather reactionary measures taken to prevent losing audiences to a form that marketers are increasingly interested in using. Audiences crave meaningful connections now more than ever—which is something platform ads can’t seem to create. Right now, the struggle seems to be at a standstill, with audiences itching for a solution.

So what’s holding content marketers back from fully embracing that solution?

Context ≠ Story ≠ Content

Marketers are notorious for using nonsynonymous words interchangeably: authority and credibility, for example. Reach and visibility.

Content and storytelling.

As with much marketing nomenclature, it’s an easy mistake to make. A lot of great storytelling does happen through content—but just because your brand creates something longer than a display ad tagline, doesn’t mean it tells a story.

Just a month ago, at Forward 2016, Skyword’s Founder and CEO, Tom Gerace, stood up to simultaneously enlighten and confuse his audience with one of the simplest Powerpoint slides ever to grace a keynote: content does not equal story. That singular statement later became the foundation for much of the conference’s workshops.

This past week, I had a chance to chat with Tom—so I asked him to expound a little bit on that idea, and where he thinks content marketers have the greatest opportunity to improve.

“A story isn’t just context for what your brand says,” he explained. “It’s an ancient, set form that speaks in the exact language of how people think. It’s the most direct sort of communication we have.”

A moment later, he also added, “It’s not easy to do.”

Each moment of every day, people make decisions based on ongoing narratives in their lives. We don’t step into oncoming traffic because of what we were told the first time we encountered a street, what we reinforced in our minds with every subsequent crossing, and the grisly end we can easily imagine if we were to act against that internal narrative. Micro-narratives like these happen every second, and they make it easy for us to communicate ideas to each other—even if our stories began or developed in different ways.

So what does that mean for the difference between content and story? Content is just well-crafted noise that doesn’t connect with your audience’s common narratives. Stories are what happen when a piece of content convinces its audience to engage and begin anticipating the next step of their narratives.

Depiction of the literary heroes journey


Turning Story Cycles into Marketing

So how can you begin thinking about your content strategy from a story perspective, instead of looking at content as mere marketing collateral?

An easy and powerful way to begin is by defining next steps and goals for every piece of content you produce. No more one-off pieces that you just dump into a landing page and hope for the best. Instead, start intentionally building your material in such a way that a continuation could happen—then encourage interaction from your audience. What stories and subjects does your audience want you to explore in greater detail? What topics have them offering answers and speculating on the future?

Engagement and conversion are one and the same if you’re purely measuring the story quality of your material. And once you’ve figured out that formula well enough that your audience is truly engaged, you can begin designing funnels that organically grow as an expansion of those stories. Not only does this encourage more leads to enter into your experience, it also improves the quality of the leads you generate, because they are already fully invested in everything about your brand’s purpose and presentation.

Beyond that, the best advice is for your marketing team to become devotees of story. Learn its cycle and the tropes that engage people time and time again. Ask yourself if your own brand engages you. And as soon as possible, find ways to involve your audience in your story’s growth. After all, what better way to reach an audience than to make them a part of the storytelling themselves?

Check out Storynomicsto learn more about the transformative power of story for your organization.

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Kyle Harper is a writer, editor, and marketer who is passionate about creative projects and the industries that support them. He is a human who writes things. He also writes about things, around things, for things, and because of things. He's worked with brands like Hasbro, Spotify, Tostitos, and the Wall Street Journal, as well as a bunch of cool startups. The hardest job he's ever taken was the best man speech for his brother's wedding. No challenge is too great or too small. No word is unimportant. Behind every project is a story. What's yours?

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